The age of rapid disruption, Part 2

These are some of the industries due to be overtaken by new technologyy in the next 5-10 years:

– Hotels: Airbnb is now the biggest hotel company in the world, although they don’t own any properties.

– Artificial intelligence: Computers become exponentially better in understanding the world. Last year a computer beat the best Go-player in the world, 10 years earlier than expected.

– The legal profession: In the US, young lawyers are not getting jobs. On IBM’s Watson, you can get legal advice (so far for more or less basic stuff) within seconds, with 90% accuracy compared with 70% accuracy when done by humans. So if you study law, stop immediately. There will be 90% fewer lawyers in the future; only specialists will remain.

– Diagnostics: Watson already helps nurses diagnose cancer, it is 4 times more accurate than human nurses.

– Face recognition: Facebook now has pattern recognition software that can recognize faces better than humans. In 2030, computers will become more intelligent than humans.

– Autonomous cars: In 2018 the first self driving cars appeared. Around 2020, the complete industry will start to be disrupted. You don’t want to own a car anymore. You will call a car with your phone, it will show up at your location and drive you to your destination. You will not need to park it: only pay for the driven distance and you can be productive while driving. Our kids will never get a driver’s licence and will never own a car. It will change the cities, because we will need 90-95% fewer cars for that. We can transform former parking spaces into parks.

– Road accidents: 1.2 million people die each year in car accidents worldwide. We now have one accident every 60,000 miles (100,000 km), with autonomous driving that will drop to 1 accident in 6 million miles (10 million km). That will save a million lives each year.

– Motor car manufacture: Most car companies will probably become bankrupt. Traditional car companies try the evolutionary approach and just build a better car, while tech companies (Tesla, Apple, Google) will follow the revolutionary approach and build a computer on wheels.

– Electric cars will become mainstream about 2020. Cities will be less noisy because all new cars will run on electricity.

– Taxis: Already partly upended. Uber is just a software tool, they don’t own any cars, and yet are now the biggest taxi company in the world.

– Insurance: Insurance companies will have massive trouble because without accidents, the insurance will become 100 times cheaper. Their car insurance business model will disappear.

– Real estate: will change because if you can work while you commute, people will move further away to live in a more beautiful neighbourhood.

– Electricity: will become incredibly cheap and clean. Solar production has been on an exponential curve for 30 years, but you can now see the burgeoning impact.

– Solar energy: More solar energy is being installed worldwide than fossil fuel installations. Energy companies are desperately trying to limit access to the grid to prevent competition from home solar installations, but that can’t last. Technology will take care of that strategy.

– Clean fresh water: With cheap electricity comes cheap and abundant water. Desalination of salt water now only needs 2 kWh per cubic meter (@0.25 cents). We don’t have scarce water in most places, we only have scarce drinking water. Imagine what will be possible if anyone can have as much clean water as he wants, at nearly no cost.

– Health: There are companies who will build a medical device called the “Tricorder” (from Star Trek) that works with your phone, takes your retina scan, your blood sample and you can breath into it. It then analyses 54 bio-markers that will identify nearly any disease. It will be cheap, and in a few years everyone on this planet will have access to world class medical analysis, nearly for free. Goodbye, medical establishment.

– 3D printing: The price of the cheapest 3D printer came down from $18,000 to $400 within 10 years. In the same time, it became 100 times faster. All major shoe companies have already started 3D printing shoes. Some spare airplane parts are already 3D printed in remote airports. The space station now has a printer that eliminates the need for the large number of spare parts they used to have in the past.

– Scanning: New smart phones will have 3D scanning possibilities. Rather than go to a shoe shop you will soon be able to 3D scan your feet and print your perfect shoe at home. In China, they have already 3D printed and built a complete 6-storey office building. By 2027, 10% of everything that’s being produced will be 3D printed.

– Agriculture : There will be a $100 agricultural robot in the future. Farmers in 3rd world countries can then become managers of their field instead of working all day in their fields.

– Aeroponics will need much less water. The first Petri dish produced veal, is now available and will be cheaper than cow produced veal in 2018. Right now, 30% of all agricultural areas are used for cows. Imagine if we don’t need that space anymore.

– Protein There are several start-ups who will bring insect protein to the market shortly. It contains more protein than meat. It will be labelled as “alternative protein source” (because most people still reject the idea of eating insects).

The age of rapid disruption. Part 1

In 1998, Kodak had 170,000 employees and sold 85% of all photo paper worldwide. Within just a few years, their business model disappeared and they went bankrupt. What happened to Kodak will happen in a lot of industries in the next 10 years and, most people won’t see it coming.

Did you foresee in 1998 that 3 years later you would never take pictures on film again? Yet digital cameras were invented in 1975. The first digital cameras only had 10,000 pixels and were a disappointment at first, but became superior and mainstream in a just a few short years. It will now happen again with artificial intelligence, health, autonomous and electric cars, education, 3D printing, agriculture and jobs. Welcome to the 4th Industrial Revolution. Some general points:

– Business opportunities: If you think of a niche you want to go into, first ask yourself: “In the future, do I think the public will take to that?” and if the answer is yes, how can you make that happen sooner?

– If it doesn’t work with your phone, forget the idea.

– An idea designed for success in the 20th century is doomed to failure in the 21st century.

– Work : 70-80% of jobs will disappear in the next 20 years. There will be a lot of new jobs, but it is not clear if there will be enough new jobs created in such a short time. This will require a rethink on wealth distribution. (not before time!)

Tomorrow I will mention the industries and activities that seem destined for huge change.

Gerrymandering

The 2018 election results are a powerful demonstration of why American politicians want to keep control of redistricting to themselves, thus exposing one of the most blatently undemocratic aspects of elections.

Successful partisan gerrymandering of constituences rests on one major concept: distributing the votes for your political party more evenly among districts than your opponent. One way to measure how successfully a party is distributing its votes is through what political scientists call “wasted votes”. Most of the votes for Democrats would be considered “wasted” because they are packed into heavily Democratic urban and suburban districts rather than being distributed throughout the state. Republicans have been very successful in adjusting boundaries to have just enough Republican votes in rach district to carry most countrified districts.

GOP lawmakers around the country have ruthlessly used their control of the redistricting process to cement statehouse and congressional majorities in states such as Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio and Wisconsin. In addition to increasing the Republican majority in the House of Representatives, GOP control in those states has also led to policy shifts in favor of lower taxes, deregulation, weakened labor unions and making abortion more difficult.

Although Democrats have benefited from gerrymanders in states they control (most notably in Maryland), the party has generally begun to embrace nonpartisan redistricting proposals as good policy and good politics. Earlier this month, Democrats in New Jersey’s Legislature attempted to change the redistricting process in ways that would have cemented the party’s power, only to see grassroots Democratic activists scuttle the effort.

The Courts have been even-handed, rejecting multiple congressional maps around the country, declaring they were unfairly drawn to handicap political opponents. Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court even redrew all 18 of the state’s congressional districts after finding the Republican Legislature had tilted the map too far in the GOP’s favor. (Adapted from an article on NPR)

My comment: being allowed as a politician to adjust your electoral districts to benefit your party should be (is?) unconstitutional. The right way of handling this is to get a non-party-political, independent body to spread the voters evenly and fairly. Their decisions have to be final. Take redistricting out of the hands of party politicians!

Opioids

When it comes to taking opioids, the United States has the dubious honour of leading the world. For every one million Americans, almost 50,000 doses of opioids are taken every day. That’s four times the rate in the UK. Take too many and you have a problem, and America certainly has a problem. The number of opioid prescriptions has fallen by 18% from its peak in 2010, but the total is still three times higher than in 1999.

Nationally, opioids killed more than 33,000 people in 2015, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That figure includes deaths from heroin, an illegal opioid. But almost half involved a prescription opioid – that is, a painkiller available from a pharmacy with a note from a doctor.

So why does America – more than any country in the world – have an opioid problem? There is more than one cause, but one issue is that American doctors prescribe – a lot. Most insurance, especially for poor people, won’t pay for anything but a pill. Often the best thing is physical therapy, but no one will pay for that, and in any case it often needs prior long-winded pre-authorisation (for bureaucracy and procrastination healthcare insurers beat the Federal government). So doctors write a prescription.

Then there is the incessant advertising for drugs on TV, which use medical gobbledegook and are seldom explained. What they want you to focus on are the beautiful, healthy “patients” gambolling on stunning Caribbean beaches, better, presumably, for having taken the unpronounceable drug.

The US and New Zealand are the only countries that allow prescription drugs to be advertised on television. Pharmaceutical company spending in the US reached $6.4 billion in 2016 – a rise of 64% since 2012. None of the 10 most-advertised brands in 2016 was an opioid, but mass-marketing of drugs has accustomed the public to a plethors of advertised drugs that collectively promise to cure almost everything. In 2015, the American Medical Association called for a ban on adverts for prescription drugs, but they were not going to prevail against Big Pharma, whose only nod towards medical safety seems to be to include in every ad a warning “not to take the drug if you are allergic to it “. Well, yes!

It is cheaper to order American-made harmceuticals from Canada, but Big Pharma hit that idea out of the stadium. Oh, and I haven’t even mentioned the breathtaking profiteering of some pharmceutical companies with effective monopolies.

Irreparable damage

Recently Theresa May strongly rejected the idea of holding a second Brexit referendum. Calls for such a vote have been growing among MPs, who claim it’s the only way of breaking the parliamentary deadlock. But May, who survived a Tory leadership challenge, insisted that another referendum would do “irreparable damage to the integrity of our politics”.

What does she mean: “‘would do’ irreparable damage to the integrity of our politics”? “Would do? The irreparable damage is already done! The political class has shown themselves to be incompetent, unable to analyse the problems associated with leaving the EU, to take a measured view of what could and could not be done, or to devise a strategy on exit from the EU membership without wrecking the relationship with Britain’s biggest trading partners, and undermining the way of life, prosperity and security of the people who elected them. The problem in the UK is the same as in the US – the politicians don’t actually initiate ideas or make the decisions any more; they are ciphers. It is the donors who tell them what to do, but on this issue the rich backers of Brexit are as ignorant and incapable of homework as the politicians.

Brexit was always going to be immoderate in the hands of the extreme right wing of what is inaccurately and euphemistally called the “Conservative” Party. Brexit, for sure, is very far from being a conservative idea. It is certainly an un-Epicurean one.

Something really useful: How to save your battery’s life

In a healthy battery, ions flow freely between the anode and the cathode, and back again. Batteries degrade mainly because the surfaces of these electrodes become encrusted with oxidised electrolyte, and because other “parasitic” reactions follow on from that. Apple says that the lithium-ion batteries in its iPhones lose about 20% of their capacity after 500 charge cycles; most manufacturers rate their devices at about 300-500 cycles. Every time you recharge your laptop, you shave a few seconds off its battery life.

Many of us have the idea that it’s better to charge your phone all the way up, and then to use it until the battery’s nearly dead. This is quite wrong. Lithium-ion batteries don’t need to be fully charged; in fact, a high voltage stresses the battery. Most of the time, you’re better off charging it to 80% and then plugging it in again if it gets below 50%. Don’t let it drop to zero, and only charge it to 100% once a month or so. Leaving it to charge overnight is also bad. It keeps the battery in a high-tension state, wearing down the chemistry within. Batteries hate high temperatures, so don’t leave your phone in the sun, or your laptop on a bed with its cooling vents blocked. And if you’re not going to use a device for a bit, try to leave it charged to about 50%.
(The Week 15 December 2018)

A take on committees

Some people love a good committee,
And revel in its nitty-gritty:
Arcane debates on last year’s failings,
The contents of circulars and mailings;
The annual dinner, drink and eats;
Optimization of receipts.

Chairpersons, regardless of their gender
Like to set their own agenda.
This, their most important role,
Gives them what they want – control.
They’re happy to keep debate in play,
Provided they have the final say.

Others hold forth, expound, expand
On the minor stuff they understand – –
Like weather, beds and movie stars
And email spam and parking cars.
With substance they’re inclined to freeze,
More often they are absentees.

Then there are those, about a third,
Who, if they have views, are seldom heard.
They arrive, they sit, look lost in thought,
But are they thinking, as what they ought?
As supernumeraries they shirk,
Avoiding tasks and paperwork.

Meanwhile, some champing at the bit,
Are pondering if they should quit.
They are not there for social fun,
But simply, yes, to get things done.
They move, they shake, their presence fleeting,
And off they flash to their next meeting.

Their exit quickly ends debate.
The chairman asks about the date
(making the remaining members fidget)
Of a meeting to discuss the budget.
Members naturally avoid the rigors
Of digesting all those boring figures.

Thus they progress much like a snail.
Faced with demands, most people bail,
Leaving achievement satisfaction
To that rarity, the man of action.

Comment: I have never joined a committee that I didn’t want to resign from.

The conundrum of internship

What to think about the ubiquitous issue of internship? On the one hand taking on an intern from college (extraordinarily popular in America) gives the young person an introduction to commerce or politics and a transition to the real world. It allows the organisation to assess the person’s usefulness and adaptability without immediate commitment or legal entanglement and the disagreeable possibility of having to fire a young, maybe vulnerable employee. For the internee it is a foot in the door.

On the other hand, some interns are paid something, but mainly a nominal amount; others are paid nothing, and the message is “you are lucky to be here at all”. The implication of this is that you have to come from a well heeled family prepared to subsidise you, and this is both unfair to the people without private financial help, very divisive, and no doubt annoying to parents who thought the end of college was the end of endless educational expenses.

In my day I never heard of internship at all. You were either offered a paid job or told your face didn’t fit. The starting pay was, of course, modest, but if you messed up the company had, by law, to warn you, point out your failings and make arrangements to train you better. This is/was the civilised way of conducting employee relations. I have a feeling that Epicurus would have a single word to describe internship: exploitation, a way of getting enthusiastic free labour for nothing. Of course, if there is an understanding that a permanent job is waiting for you, and this is merely a trial period, then I suppose internship is better than no work at all. But, were I still a company boss I would have nothing to do with it: either hire the young person after interview, or don’t. It is not Epicurean to keep a person trying like mad, only to wave goodbye to them, come what may, having benefitted from their work.

A few thoughts on Epicureanism

Epicureanism stands for charity, friendship, foregiveness, and suspicion of ambition and politics. What Epicurus offered was not help in dying, but help in living. Liberated from superstition, he taught, you are free to pursue a pleasant life.

Here are some further thoughts:

“It is impossible to live pleasurably without living prudently, honorably snd justly, and also without living courageously, temperately and magnanimously, and without making friends, and without being philanthropic”.(Philodemus)

And this is the explanation of the universe espoused by Epicurus, to be found on page 63 of “The Swerve” by Stephen Greenblatt (highly recommended and very readable).

“In constant motion, atoms collide with each other, and, in certain circumstances, they form larger and larger bodies….the sun and the moon are made of atoms, as are human beings , water, flies and grains of sand. There are no super-categories of matter, no hierarchy of elements. Heavenly bodies are not divine beings who shape our destiny for good or ill. ……they are part of the natural order….subject to the same principle of creation and destruction, they govern everything that exists”.

Thought for a special day

Epicurus would, were he alive today, strongly advise us to avoid getting distraught and upset about the state of the world, the ugly politics, the chaos, the partisanship, the rudeness and vulgarity that has been stoked by extremists, modern media and mutual intolerance. Even on this Christmas day this is a difficult thing to do, and I personally struggle to practice what I preach – it is sometimes incredibly difficult. But we have to remember that we cannot single-handedly change the world; all we can do is to be resolutely courteous, kind and thoughtful of others, listening and contributing constructively, respecting other points of view and setting an example of tolerance and relaxed good humour.

Afghanistan – the futile war

It’s now more than 17 years later, years in which American commanding generals in Afghanistan repeatedly hailed the U.S. military’s “progress” there and regularly applauded the way we had finally “turned a corner” in the Afghan War — only to find more Taliban fighters armed with RPGs around that very corner.

Finally, in the 18th year of the war, an American general — to be specific, Joseph Dunford, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — has come to a somewhat different conclusion. This, mind you, at a moment when the Taliban has taken control of more territory than at any time since they were forced from power by the U.S. invasion of 2001. His assessment also comes in the face of the worst casualties (“unsustainable”) for the American-backed Afghan security forces in memory (more than 28,000 deaths since 2015, according to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani). In response, Dunford offered the shocking news that — get a grip on yourself here — the Taliban “are not losing right now, I think that is fair to say…” (Adapted from Tom Dispatch, 28 Nov 2018)

Hmm… give America’s top general for finally offering up the bad news, even if a few years late. In the twenty-first-century annals of the U.S. military, this passes for realism of the first order. Trumps reaction is to immediately remove half the American soldiers in Afghanistan, without consultation with anyone. This leaves the other half in acute danger, not to mention the Afghan army, whose members likely will be massacred. This reminds me of the scuttle out of Vietnam, the previous major American defeat. If you are going to withdraw, just withdraw, not half, but all the troops. This puts the remaining troops in jeopardy.

The Catholic church and sexual abuse

At the Second Lateran Council 1139 Rome imposed mandatory celibacy for priests. The issue was money because, under primogeniture (now disappeared) the sons of bishops and priests had a legal claim on the land and holdings of the priestly “living.” Celibacy was instituted, but at the same time the Church, not then or since, has addressed sexual activity among priests.

Catholics are now in silent revolt, the more obvious sign being the new habit of placing one or two pennies in the collection box. More serious are the Five Demands:

– Stop the prevarications of the church and cooperate with the lay authorities to deal with errant priests accused of abuse.
– Stop wearing royalty-like garb and dress simply.
– Give space in every church newspaper to abuse survivors.
– empower the priests to cooperate with their parishioners local councils and committees.
– re- introduce women priests (women had a big role in the early church, until the misogynists
took control).

These ideas would help bring a measure of accountability and democracy to the church, but they do not address the reasons for the extraordinary number of accusations of sexual abuse.

The Pope has just announced that the church will not defend sexual predators, but he evades the real point.

The fact is that celibacy is the main driver in the wave of abuse. Celibacy has no scriptural validity; it is just a human construct. Human beings are gregarious and sexual beings. They yearn for love and emotional and physical closeness. This is a fact that cannot be ignored. Telling priests that love of Jesus is sufficient is not sufficient, and I guess both Jesus (who might or might not have been married), and his disciple Paul, the first Pope (believed to have been married) would probably agree were they to re-visit the planet. In short, celibacy is ridiculous and unnecessary, and by foisting it on the priesthood the church was asking for trouble, even if that trouble was postponed for nine hundred years.

Anxiety

Epicurus told us that anxiety is worse than bodily pain. Present suffering soon passes; anxiety lasts a long time and undermines an otherwise happy life. He was right, and pharmaceuticals are not the answer; they only mask the problem. Many of them become less effective with time and I can think of one positively dangerous drug that makes things a lot worse.

I rather subscribe to the view that persistent background anxiety is actually chemical in nature, maybe an inherent trait in individuals and may be reduced a bit by meditation or reading a book, but seldom eliminated. Outside events and circumstances might trigger particular attacks, but there are some people into whom anxiety is hard-wired. It is possible that this is an ancient survival mechanism, a way the human being deals with perceived or possible threats in a hunter-gatherer society where there is no law and no rules.

I like the idea of the bell curve in things like this: the mass of people occupy most of the curve, well-balanced and modestly anxious over specific matters. Then, at the extreme ends of the curve there are those who are either in a constantly elevated state of nerves or who are never anxious at all. Some think the latter have no imagination!

Come to think of it little has probably changed in ten thousand years.

The rise of in-work poverty

An Oklahoma branch of Walmart once asked its employees to donate Thanksgiving food to hungry colleagues. “Hang on,” said incredulous staff, “these people can’t feed their families because you pay pitiful wages, yet it’s up to us to bail them out?”

In the UK this Christmas there are Tory MPs doing Christmas photo ops with food banks and urging us to help those in need. It’s meant to advertise their charity, but it just calls attention to the scandal that so many now depend on food banks to survive. Shockingly, one in six of the people who use the food bank network are in work. In the old days in working-class communities it was taken for granted that if you were willing to work hard you could earn enough to provide your family with at least the basics of life. The rise of “in-work” poverty has destroyed that basic precept: millions working full-time now can’t make ends meet, and have to rely on tax credits, and often food banks. The rise of “a working underclass of charity cases” is a sign of a dysfunctional economy. It is up to politicians to fix it, not call on us to make up for their failure. (Janice Turner, The Times and The Week 15 December 2018).

It seems to be the policy of the UK Tory Party to deliberately make the lives of working men and women so miserable, hungry and hopeless that they work harder. Is that it? Is that the great economic theory behind a relentless policy of misery for all except the rich. Epicurus would, I think, be forecasting serious trouble, and, lo and behold he would have been right! What do the working poor have to lose – vote Brexit, vote change at any cost.
Trouble is the government policy is not the fault of EU politicians. The opportunity for change came at the last election, and the working poor did not vote, or did not vote in big enough numbers.

Compassionate assisted dying

“Now, as I turn 85, with my life closer it its end than its beginning, I wish to help give people dignity in dying. Just as I have argued firmly for compassion and fairness in life, I believe that terminally ill people should be treated with the same compassion and fairness when it comes to their deaths. Dying people should have the right to choose how and when they leave Mother Earth. I believe that, alongside the wonderful palliative care that exists, their choices should include a dignifiedassisted death”. (Archbishop Desmond Tutu, quoted in the Washington Post, Oct.7, 2016).

Interestingly, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, strongly supports compassionate assisted dying as well. It is the Catholic church (not exclusively) that strongly opposes it, clinging to the old idea of the sanctity of life. This attitude was fine while lives were short and the population relatively small, but now more people are living to, and past, 100. The medical and other expenses associated with this trend are one thing, but I suspect that most old people would like a civilized release from the speed and complexity of modern life when, where and how they want it. Whether you like it or not, one gets into one’s old age and one loses energy – energy to sort out financial matters, house maintenance, the scariness of modern driving, and, most of all, the frustrations of computing. These and many others aspects of modern living cause un-needed stress. The sanctity of life crowd would make them put up and shut up. So much for christian loving kindness!

Was 2018 an Epicurean year?

This will be my final post of the year. The Christmas period is a very busy one for me, so I’m afraid I cannot post until 2019, when my weekly contributions will resume as normal. Cheers! 

Amidst the relentless negativity that is the Western news cycle, 2018 was in many respects, a good year for Epicureans. War continues its long term decline, with even the violence in the Middle East, Yemen notwithstanding, beginning to subside. ISIS is a shadow of its former self. There weren’t as many terrorist attacks as we have been accustomed to. For those of us who live in NATO countries, we aren’t as involved in fighting wars abroad as were for most of our post-WW2 history. For all of Trump’s belligerent rhetoric, he hasn’t actually started any new conflicts or military interventions. Cyber warfare is an increasing concern. But fewer people dying in battle is something to be grateful for.

Alongside the decline of war has been the decline of mortality. Improving healthcare, lower murder rates and increasing affluence mean that in the vast majority of the world’s countries, we are dying less and living longer than ever before. This poses a challenge for our social security and social care systems, which are under increasing strain. But its a far better problem to have than premature death.

Technology continues to create new jobs and more opportunities at a breathtaking pace. Communication is cheaper and easier than ever before. Becoming and staying informed is a doddle, which not only makes for a more intelligent and vigilant population, it makes it harder for autocrats and corrupt politicians to get away with wrongdoing. Most importantly, technology can save lives, such as the new Apple Watch’s ability to detect abnormal heart rhythms that could be symptoms of circulatory problems.

The worldwide decline in absolute poverty and rise of the middle class continues. Fewer people than ever are living on less than a dollar a day. This is good for the developing world, but it also create new customers for the goods and services the developed world can provide. Of course there are challenges in having to compete with more countries for investment and talent, but the opportunities are considerably greater.

Even in the fight against climate change, there is reason for optimism. In a UN conference in Poland this month, delegates from almost 200 countries set out specific measures they would take to tackle climate change, to meet the targets set by the Paris accord. Moreover, the means by which we can reduce carbon emissions have never been greater, whether its cheaper batteries, more efficient solar panels, better housing insulation or the growing popularity of electric cars. In the UK, emissions from trains have dropped even as more people travel by train, because of the government’s railway electrification programme. Young people, who will have to live with the consequences of climate change, have never been more aware of it or more determined to prevent the worst of its effects.

However, even as these positive long term trends continue, there is immense discontent across the world. In the developing world, there is frustration that they are not catching up with the West fast enough. Countries like India or Pakistan are being held back by protectionism, backward technology, and systemic corruption. Many African nations feel exploited by foreigners- not just Western energy companies, but the Chinese government as well. The West’s attitude to the developing world has been one of patronising pity, fuelled by the soft bigotry of low expectations. Much of the developing world is growing and urbanising at an unsustainable rate, resulting in increasing air pollution, low-quality housing and the spread of disease. To make matters worse, climate change will impact the developing world the hardest; crop yields may decline and droughts increase in frequency and severity. Having said all that, the vast majority of the developing world is making enormous progress.

The same cannot be said for the developed world, which faces the prospect of stagnation and relative decline. The developed world has an ageing population, with fewer workers and more retirees. This will result in higher taxes and less generous social security systems. The economic performance of the developed world post-2008 has been very poor, whether its a sovereign debt crisis in Greece, a decade-long period of wage stagnation in Britain, a declining working-age population in Germany, or insane levels of inequality in the US.

Just as significantly, the West is increasingly politically divided. In the broadest possible terms, almost all developed nations have an older, less well-educated demographic who are increasingly supporting authoritarian political movements. These people feel frustrated with an establishment that they believes ignores them. They are sceptical of globalisation and feel very patriotic. They are also concerned about the increasing levels of immigration from the developed world, which has transformed much of the West, and undoubtedly will continue to do so. Juxtaposed to this are a cohort of younger, well-educated people who embrace globalisation and its opportunities, and do not express any nostalgia for the politics and culture of the past. Rather, they are concerned with the prejudices and illiberal sentiments of the new authoritarians, and are particularly sensitive to what they see as the plight of disadvantaged groups: gay people, ethnic and religious minorities, women and the transgendered. The divide between the supporters and opponents of globalisation is becoming more entrenched, with any prospect of compromise between the two groups becoming ever-unlikely.

That said, Epicureans should be thankful. 2018 could’ve been a lot worse. Despite the ineptitude of our governments, the human race continues to make great progress, achieving new and wonderful things all the time. We can only hope that moderation, common sense and decency will prevail. Merry Christmas, and have a Happy New Year!

Driverless cars: developing something because you can develop something

To The Guardian
It was sad to see David Edmonds fall for the propaganda from Silicon Valley regarding driverless cars. This new technology will require that drivers be able to intervene, but it’s well known that the less you do something, the worse you get at it. So the less you drive, the less skilled your intervention is and the more dangerous autonomy becomes. The same is likely to be true of ethics. In essence, dependence on technology is a form of outsourcing. To outsource (as many companies are discovering) is to export skills. Do we really want to export ethical thinking to technology companies?
(Margaret Heffernan, Farrington Gurney, Somerset. The Week 24 Nov 2018)

I have to admit that I don’t see the benefits of driverless cars, unless you are in the transport or taxi businesses. I can, on the other hand, imagine riding in a driverless car, petrified and ready at the slightest excuse to switch to manual. What are you expected to do in one of these vehicles? Watch a movie, read a book, have a deep conversation in relaxed mode about the national fiscal deficit? Really? More likely, it’s all about allowing former drivers uninterrupted time on their cellphones as they travel from A to B. Which means that the they are not watching where they are going and how many people they have nearly knocked over.

Message to techies: spend your time eliminating hate messages on social media and malign foreign interference in elections. And helping the poor, sick and underpaid!

The Supreme Court … thoroughly politicised

The US Supreme Court, with the addition of two hard-right justices appointed by Trump, has now become so politicised that one could argue that a Republican Senate is almost unnecessary. The Court has five of the most conservative justices there have been for a hundred years. Although John Roberts tries to temper the extreme views of people like Brett Kavanaugh the fact is that we can now “look forward” to dire changes to laws on abortion, affirmative action, voting rights for minorities, workers’ rights, and such gun safety laws as there are. Then there are likely to be decisions in favour of religious groups which would allow them to opt out of civil rights and other duties of a normal citizen.

Whatever else Trump has done to dismantle the effectivenes and image of the US overseas, at home he has potentially cemented a right-wing judicial coup. And this is without the scores of judicial nominations which were held up by Republicans under Obama until there was a Republican President. These now threaten to make the country suspiciously like Hungary or Turkey, where dissidents and minorities increasingly are deprived of their rights. We no longer have politicians willing to compromise; on the contrary, they are mainly “yes-men”.

The above sounds alarmist and distopian, and I sincerely hope I am wrong. But where are the old-style good guys with integrity and honour? If you can name any, please comment below.
(Oh, and while you are about it, explain why the GOP, formerly the party of honour, patriotism and fervent support for the Constitution and democracy, became the lapdogs of the rich and purveyors of bigotry and xenophobia. This is an issue now being discussed by right-wing writers like Max Boot, Charles Sykes, Rick Wilson and Jeff Flake in books being published in a steady stream, omitting, of course, any discussion of their own responsibilty).

Why is this connected to Epicureanism? Because you cannot have a pleasant, enjoyable life under the rule of law if you know that the rulers care only for rich donors and are prepared to dismantle a “country-for-all” in favour of an oligarchy where the ordinary, struggling citizen is promised the Earth, but gets zilch, nada or nothing, in that order. And the worst of all disgraces is the packing of the Courts of Law with nobodies who, one fears, will do what they are told.

Time to rein in corporate power!

One of the few areas of agreement in Washington’s “bitterly divided politics” is “the need to tackle the omnipotence of the Faangs (Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google). Donald Trump may be a Twitter addict, but he has been “sharply critical” of the power of big tech. The Democrats taking control of the House of Representatives and its powerful committees are also “committed” to taking them on. No one is expecting the sort of “full-throated antitrust pursuit” that had the White House taking on the monopoly of John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil more than a century ago, but public opinion is turning against Big Tech. San Francisco voted recently voted to adopt “Proposition C”: an extra tax on its biggest businesses that will raise funds to combat homelessness. A good thing too!

Nonetheless, the power of big companies to push governments around seems unchanged at the moment, and is demonstrated by the way in which Amazon set about choosing locations for its new HQ. As well as demanding good roads, public transport and educated locals (all paid for by taxpayers), the company stated that “incentives” from state and local governments would be “significant factors in the decision-making process”. We can see much the same thing in Britain, where the chemicals giant Ineos (which is run by the UK’s richest man, Jim Ratcliffe, and made some $2bn in profit last year) appears to have persuaded local authorities in the Tees Valley, one of the poorest areas in England, “to build a factory for him”. Leaving the EU will probably make Britain “more vulnerable” to such “corporate blackmail” as it tries to retain and attract jobs. It may well make short-term sense for companies to treat people’s jobs as “bargaining chips”, but if it ends up eroding support for capitalism and globalisation, “it will come back to bite them in the end”. (The Week, 17 November 2018)

Actually, what we do need is precisely the sort of “full-throated antitrust pursuit that had the White House taking on the monopoly of John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil more than a century ago.” These arrogant people, especially the tech companies, have coarsened discourse, encouraged crude, vulgar bullies, racists and political extremists, weakened the traditional Press and caused huge social changes, in my opinion none of them good. The bosses never meant, I’m sure, to undermine society, even elections, but, having done so much damage they are now prevaricating and avoiding doing their duty to society. They need to be brought up with a jolt, and the weak-kneed, mamby-pamby Congress must stop paying obeisance to them and treat them like any other public service (especially regarding tax). Otherwise the public will turn against modern, disagreeable, divisive capitalism altogether.

Alleluia!